The Robinson Library
The Robinson Library >> Fine Arts >> Painting >> United States
Thomas Hart Benton

painter of murals who focused on depicting "real people and real activities as seen wherever they may occur"

Thomas Hart Benton

Thomas Hart Benton was born in Neosho, Missouri, on April 15, 1889. His father, Colonel Maecenas Benton, was a lawyer and four-time U.S. Congressman who so wanted his son to follow in his footsteps that he named him after his uncle, U.S. Senator Thomas Hart Benton. In 1905, Thomas was sent to the Western Military Academy, but it was quickly obvious that Thomas was far more interested in art than politics. Fortunately, his mother, Elizabeth, was able to convince her husband to allow Thomas to attend the Art Institute of Chicago instead. After two years there (1907-1908), Benton spent three years studying is Paris, first at the Academie Julianne and then the Academie Collarossi. After returning to the United States in 1912, Benton settled in New York City and began his career as a painter.

Benton spent most of World War I as an architectural draftsman for the U.S. Navy at Norfolk Naval Base. His principal assignment was to make realistic drawings and illustrations of shipyard work and life, and it was this work that helped him define his painting style.

Returning to New York City in 1919, Benton began creating the murals and monumental paintings for which he is known today. Abandoning the Modernist themes that were popular at the time, Benton focused on depicting "real people and real activities as seen wherever they may occur," an artistic style now known as Regionalism.

In 1922, Benton married Rita Piacenza, an Italian immigrant he had met while teaching art classes for a neighborhood organization in New York City, where she was one of his students. The couple had a son, Thomas Piacenza Benton, born in 1926, and a daughter, Jessie Benton, born in 1939, and remained together until his death.

Although Benton openly defied New York City's "accepted" artistic culture, he was commissioned to paint a series of murals for the New School for Social Research. Completed in two stages (1920 and 1926), the murals became known as America Today, and are now owned by the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art.

detail from America Today
part of America Today

In 1925, Benton became an instructor at the New York Art Students League, where he taught until 1935. Benton remained very active as a painter during this time, completing murals for Indiana's pavilion at the Century of Progress International Exposition and for the original site of the Whitney Museum of American Art, in addition to a number of privately commissioned paintings and murals.

Despite his financial success in New York City, Benton was never popular with art critics in that city, and was frequently openly critical of them. His inability to "get along" with the "traditional" New York City art scene finally led him to return to Missouri in 1935, a move made even easier by a commission to paint a mural in the Missouri State Capitol in Jefferson City. A Social History of Missouri began attracting criticism as soon as it was completed because Benton made sure to include depictions of many "less than ideal" aspects of Missouri history, including slavery, Jesse James, and the Tom Pendergast political machine. After completing the mural, Benton accepted a teaching position at the Kansas City Art Institute.

Benton's mural in the Missouri State Capitol
Benton's mural in the Missouri State Capitol

As he had while in New York City, Benton continued his painting career while teaching. One of his best known works from this period, Persephone, cost him his teaching job in 1941, however. Considered scandalous by the Art Institute, the painting hung in showman Billy Roses' New York nightclub, The Diamond Horseshoe, for many years before being acquired by the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City.


Although he continued painting until his death, Benton's popularity began to wane in the late-1940's due to the rise of Abstract Expressionism over Regionalism. He died in his Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts, studio on January 19, 1975.

April 15
Thomas Hart Benton
New York City
World War I
Century of Progress International Exposition
January 19, 1975

Questions or comments about this page?

The Robinson Library >> Fine Arts >> Painting >> United States

This page was last updated on 01/19/2018.